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The future of the Middle East
The future of the Middle East
On Thursday 4 June, US President Barack Obama gave a speech at Cairo University in Egypt which was designed to reestablish and renew relations between America and the Muslim world.
Wednesday, June 10,2009 03:53

On Thursday 4 June, US President Barack Obama gave a speech at Cairo University in Egypt which was designed to reestablish and renew relations between America and the Muslim world.


A foreign affairs blogger Gideon Rachman described the speech as “an effort to call an end to the clash of civilizations”. It was.

Obama combined lofty rhetoric with practical solutions and an impressive sensitivity about the previously distrustful relationship between the US and the Muslim world. Despite some remaining cautious about the practical possibilities of dealing with incredibly complex situations in the region, the speech was well received by most concerned. In contrast to President Bush, the speech was aimed at the audience present instead of solely pandering to the conservative Right at home. The Daily Star of Beruit described it as: “Representing a country, through its innovative leader, speaking quietly and carrying a big stick.”


However, some government officials and citizens in the region were disappointed with the lack of a coherent and detailed practical plan for bringing peace to the Middle East. Head of the Centre for Dialogue and Cooperation among Civilizations in Indonesia, Din Syamsuddin commented: “We would like to see the realisations of these good ideas in the speech. Then we can judge US foreign policy.” There was no mention of Bush or the explicit phrase ‘terrorism’. He invoked the traditional Muslin welcome of ‘Assalaamu Alaykum’ - peace be upon you - and drew heavily on his Muslim background and his time in Indonesia. He quoted the Koran four times and used quotes from the Bible and the Torah to back up his overall message that people of different religions have more in common than then they do differences.


Obama was careful to acknowledge the errors of America’s past leaders. He mentioned colonialism, the Cold War and the American part in the overthrow of the democratic government of Iran in the 1950s. The audience was receptive and even began to applaud the more difficult passages designed to provoke thought as well as the ones designed to appease those in attendance. In a marked change from the United States’ usual approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Obama insisted that Hamas recognize Israel and renounce the undertaking of violence. He described the situation of the Palestinian people as “intolerable.” Obama was careful to clarify that he intended to “personally pursue” a solution and backed this up with the statement that “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of the continued Israeli settlements.”


This is sure to send a strong message that the US is changing direction to the powerful Israeli pressure groups that exist in America at present. Obama renewed his commitment to Afghanistan by pledging to invest $1.5 billion each year in infrastructure and another $2.8 billion to help the Afghans develop their economy.

He emphasised the difference between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by stating that the US “did not go by choice, we went because of necessity.” In contrast, “Iraq was a war of choice.” He emphasized that the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative must be continually supported and that it is time to “choose progress over a focus on the past.” However, it will be difficult to convince more moderate Arabs that Washington is finally willing to set aside their historic Israeli bias. Furthermore, in the upcoming Presidential Election, all candidates support the Islamic Revolution.


Although the subject of democracy was slightly glossed over, he insisted that “no system of government can be imposed upon one nation by another.” Obama skirted the usual American imperialism criticisms by stating that these were not “just American ideas, they are human rights.” He pledged to support the rebuilding of trust between Iran and America especially with regards to preventing a nuclear arms race. His statement that “no single nation should pick and choose which nations hold nuclear weapons,” was refreshing and much-needed for a region that feels they have been considered too irresponsible to invest in nuclear technology while Western countries continue to hold nuclear weapons.


The last part of the speech included proposals for grass-roots action designed to repair and reinvigorate links between citizens of the Middle East and the US. Obama promised to increase scholarships, host a summit of entrepreneurship and launch a fund to support technological development. Obama intends to ensure that: “A teenager in Kansas can communicate with a teenager in Cairo.” This is a unique and crucial way to ensure that the peace process continues and lasts.

Perhaps the true effectiveness of the speech can be measured by extremists groups’ worried reactions. The former President and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the ‘supreme leader of Iran’ put out a statement saying America was “deeply hated” in the region and no amount of “beautiful and sweet” words could change this. Osama Bin Laden broadcasted a rare audio bulletin before the talk accusing Obama of planting the seed of revenge and hatred.”


The speech was not one given by a coward or someone unaware of the task lying before them. The audience was pre-selected by the US and included both supporters and enemies of America. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned although democratically elected Egyptian opposition group prevented from talks by the Bush administration, were invited and greeted Obama’s remarks with applause.


Essam El Erian, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said: “I think he has succeeded by 70 to 80 per cent. But if he doesn’t follow up with action it will be a disaster.” Edward Luce and Daniel Dombey of the Financial Times described the speech as: “setting his foreign policy on a course that will put his democratic agenda on the backburner.”


Noble oratory and uplifting metaphors about the wonders of democracy are important but are not enough to solve the Middle East’s problems alone. Obama’s speech managed to combine democratic ideology with practical and rational procedures that allowed him to win over his audience and watchers around the world.


While it is not, and should not be, a 12 step plan to bring about global peace, Obama has achieved what so many world leaders have failed to - he has opened the gateways of communication and that can only be a good thing.


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